In previous seasons, Sunday’s game against the New England Patriots would have been among the biggest games on the Kansas City Chiefs’ schedule: a battle for the AFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. It could still be exactly that — but this isn’t the same Patriots team we’re used to seeing, either. The passing of the torch from Tom Brady to Patrick Mahomes may be a distant memory, but Cam Newton’s Patriots still represent a good challenge.
So which Chiefs are well positioned to rise to the occasion — and which are not?
Tedric Thompson: An unheralded free-agent signing, Thompson has been paying dividends in a banged-up Chiefs secondary. He’s had some big hits over the last couple of weeks as he earned playing time as the fourth safety. Once thought to be a bottom of the roster guy, Tedric is proving to be a valuable role player.
Willie Gay Jr.: The Chiefs’ defensive coaching staff has been taking it slow with the Chiefs second-round pick — but we’re starting to see him find his way onto the field. The mental aspects of the position might take some time for any rookie to develop, but Gay’s physical gifts are undeniable. Could this be the week that he takes even more snaps away from Ben Niemann?
Michael Danna: In many ways, Danna is already playing like a veteran. He’s not the most explosive athlete, but he seems to understand his assignments — and is able to do the dirty work required on the EDGE. In that way, he’s a very Patriots-type player: unselfish, smart and strong, he’ll be able to handle what the New England offense throws his way.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire: The 2020 rookie class continues to trend upward. CEH has been tremendous from Day 1 — but it still feels like he’s on the verge of something bigger. In Week 1, he was incredible on the ground, but didn’t do much in the passing game. The next week, he did a little of everything, but didn’t see the end zone. When Edwards-Helaire puts it all together, it’s going to be spectacular — and it could be this week. The Chiefs have a good history of rookie running backs in the passing game against New England.
Others trending in the right direction: Tyreek Hill, Taco Charlton, Mecole Hardman and Mike Pennel
Ben Niemann: We hate to keep bagging on the former Hawkeye linebacker, but there are some signs pointing to his defensive role being decreased. The team is finally working Willie Gay into the linebacker rotation — and he shows some promise. When L’Jarius Sneed went on injured reserve this week, the team also called up linebacker Darius Harris from the practice squad. These moves could signal that the existing rotation is about to change. Given the leadership roles of Anthony Hitchens and Damien Wilson — and what we’ve seen of Niemann on the field — it’s pretty clear which way this thing is going.
Cornerback depth: For this week, the Chiefs are really pushing their luck at corner; Sneed is on IR, Charvarius Ward’s hand is still healing and Bashaud Breeland is still suspended. There isn’t much room for additional injury, and they don’t have options if one of the key players struggles. Perhaps they can get some contribution from Antonio Hamilton — or keep using the four-safety looks to make up for their lack of corners. Even against a Patriots team without elite wide receivers, this is still an area of concern.
Others trending in the wrong direction: Darwin Thompson, Nick Keizer
Value (sleeper) pick: Sammy Watkins
Watkins’ contributions are often overlooked, but he’s become a very reliable part of the Chiefs offense. Catching seven of eight targets against the Baltimore Ravens, Watkins has shown that Patrick Mahomes trusts him. But his commitment to blocking is what the Patriots probably remember most. In fact, Watkins has been a problem for their star cornerback Stephon Gilmore for much of his career. Whether he’s making big plays — or just frustrating the Patriots’ best defensive player — Watkins could be a big part of the Chiefs’ offensive success on Sunday.